Israel Election Results: Netanyahu, the Alpha Negotiator, Battles a Political Novice for Power

Netanyahu has a decade's success at dirty deals to make coalitions. Does Gantz - the centrist with a once-in-a-decade chance to change Israel's political calculus - have the killer instinct to dethrone him?

Steve Klein
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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli president of the Supreme Court  Esther Hayut (C) and Kachol Lavan leader Benny Gantz at a memorial ceremony for late Israeli president Shimon Peres. Mount Herzl, Jerusalem. Sept 19, 2019
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Supreme Court president Esther Hayut and Kachol Lavan leader Benny Gantz at a memorial for late Israeli president Shimon Peres. Jerusalem. Sept 19, 2019Credit: AFP
Steve Klein

There is so much schadenfreude over Benjamin Netanyahu’s second-place finish to Benny Gantz that the pundits eulogizing his election campaign forget that he has decades of experience maneuvering through coalition talks.

The results of Tuesday’s Knesset election, which ended with a virtual tie between Likud and Kachol Lavan and a perplexing coalition calculus, pose a challenge to any would-be prime minister.

Successful coalition talks require skill and strategy, all the more so when you have little maneuverability. You can only offer so many ministerial posts or monetary resources, although Netanyahu hasn’t hesitated to expand cabinets and budgets exponentially to buy support.

Netanyahu has proven to be the alpha negotiator of the past decade, not only closing the deal but also setting himself up for future success and his coalition partners for future falls. So what can Gantz, a political novice, do to unseat him?

He will have to create bargaining zones, in which there is an overlap between the minimum demands of each side, with potential partners to his right. No such zone between the center or center-left and members of the religious-right bloc has existed since 2006, which is why Netanyahu has been the only game in town.

Gantz has to convince his potential coalition partners that they can’t get a better deal elsewhere, making credible threats and promises to impress on them that they need him more than he needs them.

He must also convey to the anti-Netanyahu bloc that dethroning Netanyahu takes priority over even intense policy and philosophical differences, because removing him serves everyone’s long-term interest. It is no less important that Gantz understands the limits of his leverage and the consequences of walking away.  

He has to learn from Netanyahu, who deftly undermined Tzipi Livni’s coalition talks after the resignation of Ehud Olmert left her prime minister designate in 2008. Netanyahu hasn’t looked back since the 2009 election, negotiating three consecutive governments before running into the wall that is Avigdor Lieberman this April.

That undermining of Tzipi Livni - at a time when Likud had a mere 12 seats - was Netanyahu's coup de grace. Livni had to re-negotiate with coalition partner Shas. Netanyahu outmaneuvered her by promising the ultra-Orthodox party that they would get a better deal with him if they would hold out for early elections. Shas in turn upped their demands of Livni, who refused to compromise

"I am not willing to pay any price or to cross a line that I think will be irresponsible," Livni said at the time. “If someone is willing to sell out his principles for the job, he is not worthy of it."

Nice sentiment, but you don’t have a chance against an opponent like Bibi who is willing to sell out his principles. Livni made the fatal error of failing to realize that not meeting the demands of Shas opened the door to what was to become Netanyahu’s decade-long reign.

Party leaders' red lines have to absolutely minimal. And those who are determined to win power must recognize that the dirty work of carving out a coalition will require them to absorb criticism from their voters when they ditch or freeze parts of their election platforms.

With a poster of Benjamin Netanyahu in the background, Israeli Foreign Minister and Kadima party leader Tzipi Livni prepares for an interview on Israel's Channel 2 near Jerusalem. Jan. 31 2009
With a poster of Benjamin Netanyahu in the background, Israeli Foreign Minister and Kadima party leader Tzipi Livni prepares for an interview on Israel's Channel 2 near Jerusalem. Jan. 31 2009Credit: AP

Netanyahu got the upper hand in the subsequent 2009 election; although Kadima had the most seats, it had no path to a coalition. Netanyahu played it brilliantly by luring into the coalition Labor's Ehud Barak, who thus became the enabler of Netanyahu’s legitimacy and survival.

By the 2013 election, Netanyahu was the unchallenged party leader to form a government. And even when Yesh Atid and Habayit Hayehudi created a religious-secular anti-Haredi alliance that would only enter government as a team, he turned their power play to his advantage.

Their pact allowed him to leave out the Haredim and avoid making concessions to them, and still have a sizeable coalition. He gave Yair Lapid the Finance Ministry – the first-ever Israeli finance minister with no connection to the ruling party, knowing he would struggle and inevitably suffer the loss of future Knesset seats.

Having fragmented his rivals, Netanyahu could play them against one another after the 2015 election. Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu was the only holdout, but eventually succumbed.

Even between elections, Netanyahu used coalition politics to weaken or humiliate his rivals and strengthen Likud. He never really delivered on his promises to them, causing them to lose credibility with their erstwhile supporters.

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Shas never got 11 seats again after joining Bibi in 2009. Netanyahu brought Kadima and Shaul Mofaz, who had been very critical of the government, into a national unity government in 2012; Kadima was extinct by 2015. Yesh Atid, which inherited many Kadima voters, and the religious nationalist Habayit Hayehudi have never seen the 19 and 12 seats they won respectively in 2013.

In 2016, Netanyahu toyed with the Labor-based Zionist Union before opting with Yisrael Beiteinu. Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog soon left, and Labor crashed to six seats.

Yisrael Beiteinu declined from 15 seats in 2009 to five in April, in part because Netanyahu never let Lieberman deliver any of his promises. But Lieberman finally got wise, which is why we had a do-over election this month. If Gantz is to become the alpha negotiator, he has to build on that momentum.

First, he has to block Netanyahu from forming a narrow right-wing coalition with Lieberman, who, rest assured, Bibi is doing everything to woo back. Netanyahu has tried to provoke the Yisrael Beiteinu leader's  capitulation by jeering that Avigdor "Arabs are disloyal collaborators" Lieberman will be responsible for the rise of a government of "leftists and Arabs" if he doesn’t join.

Gantz has to convince Lieberman – if he needs convincing – that hooking up with Bibi will cost him his credibility, whereas shunning Bibi for a narrow religious-centrist government will present Lieberman with the opportunity to cannibalize Likud votes once Netanyahu is gone, paving the way for a return to the Yisrael Beiteinu glory days of 2013.

Israeli ex-defense minister Avigdor Lieberman enters the hall before a meeting with his party Yisrael Beitenu, in the cooperative Israeli village of Yad Hashmona near Jerusalem on September 22, 2019
Israeli ex-defense minister Avigdor Lieberman enters the hall before a meeting with his party Yisrael Beitenu, in the cooperative Israeli village of Yad Hashmona near Jerusalem on September 22, 2019Credit: AFP

But Gantz also needs to lower everyone else’s demands, which could undermine a Netanyahu-less coalition, by expanding his own options for coalition building. If he wants Likud without Bibi, he has to present a credible threat of a coalition without Likud. His best option could be a coalition with Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu, Shas, UTJ and Labor. After all, if the Haredim can sit with the loudly anti-Haredi Lieberman, they can sit with Lapid - for the right price.

In order to create that option, Gantz needs to do unto Bibi what Bibi did unto Tzipi Livni, and let the Haredi parties know he is willing to offer a better price than whatever Netanyahu offers them. If he can play Likud, Lieberman and the Haredim off of one another, he will maximize his odds of forming a coalition. If Likud feels it will be left out, there may finally be a putsch against Bibi.

If Likud won’t budge, Gantz should work on a minority government with Yisrael Beiteinu and Labor inside and support from the Joint List and the Democratic Union from the outside. 

That would require at least nominal cooperation with the Arab-dominated Joint List, whom Lieberman Sunday again labeled "enemies," with whom no compromise can be brokered, rather than the political language of a "rival," as he terms the ultra-Orthodox Shas or UTJ.

But, Lieberman could rationalize, the history of Israel's external relations has shown that there are opportunities in negotiating with one's "frenemies" as well as one's natural political allies.

Gantz has to make Lieberman sweat. He must pursue a possible partnership with Shas, UTJ, Labor and Meretz. The trick will be to play his possible partners off each other without revealing his hand - until he knows he has a winning move.

Gantz does have a path to power. That puts him, a centrist, in an exceptional, once-in-a-decade position in Israel's political landscape. But if Gantz flubs it, don’t be surprised if Netanyahu rises from the ashes. After all, he has everything to play for – and everything to lose.

Steven Klein is an editor at Haaretz and adjunct professor at Tel Aviv University’s International Program in Conflict Resolution and Mediation. Twitter: @stevekhaaretz